Lessons learned while Building Africa's Super App

The 1 Line Description

Earned insights from the Co-Founder of Gozem on building successful Startups.

When to use it

Throughout the entrepreneurial process

Key Ideas

* This article is a summary of 10 lessons I learned while building Africa's super app. By Emeka Ajene.

* Summary by Ighlaas Carlie.

10 lessons I learned while building Africa's super app

In 2018, I moved to Lomé, Togo to bring my various experiences to bear in service of a singular opportunity: building Gozem - a 'Super App' for Africa.

From the earliest days spent traversing the streets of Lomé in search of informal sector motorcycle taxi drivers amenable to a quick sales pitch, the journey has certainly been personally and professionally fulfilling.

And thanks to a variety of experiences across African markets over the last decade or so, I’ve become privy to a number of earned insights regarding innovation-led businesses across the continent.

1. Culture is a function of leadership.

“When the mother goat chews her cud, her child watches her mouth.” — Igbo proverb

Organisational culture is a funny thing - Everyone generally agrees on its importance, at least in theory. In practice, however, at the earliest stages of company building, there are many other pressing and tangible issues that steal attention.

So as young companies necessarily focus on growth & execution, company cultures often develop unintentionally as a reflection of the personalities, preferences, and peculiarities of founding teams: the culture becomes what they reward, punish, and tolerate—for better or worse.

Across African markets where the innovation economy is relatively new and some positive aspects of Silicon Valley-style management haven't yet taken hold widely, it can be easy for startups to fall into locally familiar paternalistic, hierarchy-driven cultures where most or all decision-making comes from authority.

But often, the highest and best use of authority by company leaders isn't to simply show power but rather to empower others. While a company’s leadership (intentionally or unintentionally) creates its culture, ideally, a company’s culture serves to create additional internal leaders.

2. Talent development is a differentiator.

“Knowing but not telling is what kills old men. Hearing but not heeding is what kills young men." — Igbo proverb

Attracting necessary talent is a challenge for all organizations, and doubly so for startups. They often lack the prestige, financial muscle, and perception of job security that more established businesses enjoy. And for startups operating in African markets, the talent challenge is compounded by the relative lack of depth within local talent pools.

Startups across the African continent need to intentionally and aggressively build a talent development muscle. There needs to be a real answer to the question: ‘How do we rapidly up-skill junior staff and systematically prepare them to grow in the company and take on new challenges?’

3. It’s not what you say, it’s what gets understood.

“The voice that's used in quarrelling is not the same voice that's used in making peace.” — Igbo proverb

Often there’s some sense of shock when I tell people I moved to Togo to launch Gozem despite not speaking any French. But it’s true, and the experience taught me valuable lessons about communicating effectively.

It is often difficult leading a team that speaks a language one isn't proficient in, and it’s certainly a humbling experience. For me, among other things, it served as a forcing function for trust & deferential leadership – letting junior team members make contributions in important discussions with external parties.

Moreover though, in Gozem’s early days, after a few miscommunication-linked mishaps, I began sending a daily morning narrative email in French (translated via DeepL) that highlighted priorities of the day and key recent wins & opportunities for improvement.

Upon reflection and after in-depth discussions with early team members, I’ve come to appreciate the positive impact this had on overall team alignment and buy-in to the daily mission at a pivotal time.

While oral communication certainly has its place, well-thought-out written business communication can improve comprehension, eliminate misunderstandings, and provide organization-wide clarity – it’s one reason to take Amazon’s business writing culture seriously.

4. When you have leverage, use it.

“If a snake fails to show its venom, children will use it to tie firewood.” — Igbo proverb

Leverage is a dynamic thing. You have it at one moment under certain conditions, but the next moment, conditions change and you lose it.

In negotiations, potential 'adversaries' — employers/employees, founders/investors, business partners, and others — are often driven primarily by self-interest, so the ability to recognize where the leverage lies at a given point in time can be very valuable.

To win, of course one should develop a long-term, non-zero-sum viewpoint, but it's nonetheless advisable to exploit identified leverage. While there'll likely be future consequences if a hand is overplayed, more often than not, unused leverage becomes a source of regret.

5. Systems lead to success.

“When a group of people expects things to be done by others, nothing is done.” — Igbo proverb

“We don’t rise to the level of our goals; we fall to the level of our systems” - James Clear. Achieving successful outcomes requires consistent faithfulness to enabling processes. This is as true for organizations as it is for individuals.

It’s why many of the world’s leading innovation-led organizations use operating/management systems.

Perhaps such formal systems are less important when everyone can fit into a single room, but as an organization grows, implementing a well-structured management operating system pays dividends.

6. Become a big fish by dominating smaller ponds.

"Drop by drop is how the palm wine fills the container." — Igbo proverb

“Would you rather be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond?”

For businesses with venture-scale ambitions, markets matter. So the only answer is to play in a big pond — one where there's a path to becoming a big fish.

But startups can't do everything and be everywhere from the jump, there has to be a strategic choice of what to do and what not to do, where to play and where to delay. In business literature, among other related ideas are the concepts of beachhead markets and wedge strategies which both essentially put forth that the way to win large markets is through an initial focus on capturing smaller opportunities.

A relevant French expression that I learned during my time in Togo is 'Petit à petit, l'oiseau fait son nid' — little by little the bird builds its nest.

7. Embrace constraints & learn quickly.

"Hot soup should be sipped carefully." — Igbo proverb

According to Howard Stevenson, an entrepreneurship professor emeritus at Harvard Business School, "entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity beyond available resources." And, as alluded to in point 6 above, at the early stages of new ventures, it seems there are never enough resources: not enough time, not enough talent, not enough capital, and so on.

But rather than lament these circumstances or spend too much time trying to remove constraints (e.g., a 100% focus on fundraising), early-stage ventures should see the opportunity therein and embrace it.

Constraints often inspire better thinking, compel creativity, and force focus and (ruthless) prioritization. In many cases, this leads to quick iteration and rapid learning of what works and what doesn't, and what truly moves the needle. And when a winning formula is found, constraints push you to fully exploit the opportunity and develop a thorough understanding of the underlying mechanics.

8. Resilience should be a core organizational trait.

“A palm nut that wants to become palm oil must pass through fire.” — Igbo proverb

All businesses have to be resilient of course, but when comparing my experiences in the West to those across sub-Saharan Africa, I’d say that resilience — the ability to recover quickly from sudden disturbances and adapt easily to misfortune — is much more necessary in African markets where extraneous shocks are much more common.

During my time in Togo, Gozem experienced its share of unforeseen external bad luck, from office flooding to power outages to regular connectivity disruptions and more. And when I poll peers across the continent, it’s clear that one can’t plan for everything. Depending on the market, there can be a high likelihood of infrastructure shocks, regulatory shocks, and more.

Still, the exercise of planning is essential. Robust processes to respond to the unplanned are recommended.

9. Character, reputation, and integrity are everything.

“Not everyone who answers to the title Chief is a legitimate chief.” — Igbo proverb

For founders and managers of young ventures, your name is your name. Said simply, reputation matters.

As much as we’d all like the freedom to be individuals, startup leaders (and business leaders in general) represent more than themselves; they represent employees, investors, and other significant stakeholders. How they’re perceived among different groups — potential customers, partners, investors, etc. — can often have a real business impact, like it or not. Call it the penalty of leadership in today’s connected age: “[Leaders] must perpetually live in the white light of publicity.”

And in low-trust environments such as African markets, my view is that this is doubly important. Both on the individual and institutional levels, it’s important to always act with integrity, deliver on promises, and avoid doubt-inducing controversies.

10. As you build a business, the business builds you.

“The right hand washes the left hand, the left hand washes the right hand.” — Igbo proverb

Building a business is a process of discovery. You discover who your customers are and what they need and will pay for. You discover the products and services that best meet those needs. And you discover how to sustainably and profitably meet those needs.

So there's customer and market discovery, product discovery, and business model discovery, but one thing not talked about enough is self-discovery — throughout the entire process one learns and discovers things about her/himself.

In early-stage ventures, founders and early employees tend to be unusually invested in a company’s ups and downs, its peaks and valleys, its daily mishaps and milestones, and they learn things — about markets, management, and more — that ultimately shape their worldview. The intensity of the experience often brings with it earned insights that can last well beyond the lifetime of one’s involvement with the business.

Here, I’m reminded of two quotes that I’ll let speak for themselves.

Those are some of the lessons I've been fortunate to learn and master during my time working across the African continent and building Gozem.

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